Now that the General Assembly has passed the transportation tax, the speculation shifts to Governor Kaine (see Bacon’s Rebellion, Bearing Drift, and Mason Conservative). The conventional wisdom on the right side of the blogosphere is that the Governor is now in a position of political weakness (I haven’t been able to check the left side much, what with my wireless network emphasizing the less).
The conventional wisdom is wrong, because it forgets Political Rule Number One: No elected official is weaker than the power (s)he has courtesy of the constitution.
Governor Kaine can veto this bill, or he can, for lack of a better term, conditionally veto it (check out this comment for the excruciating details). Either way, he can completely erase the momentum the Republicans think they have gained from this. I’m guessing Kaine will take the conditional veto route. If he’s smart, he’ll challenge the general fund piece and the regional taxes, and call for a statewide tax to replace them.
I know the Republicans will scream about Kaine being an obstructionist, or refusing to have any part in the debate until now. None of it will mean a thing to the voters. All they will see is two competing plans: one from the Governor, and another from the legislature. They won’t care what the Republican leaders endured to pass their plan. They won’t care about the machinations that have fascinated us for weeks. All they will see is two competing plans.
In northern Virginia, Kaine will have the political high ground. Both plans will include funds for local projects; both will include higher taxes, but Kaine’s plan, because it has a statewide tax, will come across as more “fair” to northern Virginians, who are nursing regional wounds real and imagined going back decades. All of the supposed gains the Republicans are expecting will vanish, because they were never really there.
In Hampton Roads, well, I’ll let James Atticus Bowden reveal what Hampton Roads is thinking. This bill is a festering wound down there; the more votes are cast on this, the worse it gets.
The rest of the state will probably be more upset at Kaine than at the Republicans; after all, only Kaine will increase their taxes. However, there is almost no race outside of Hampton Roads and northern Virginia where either party has the chance of seizing a seat at the ballot box (unless local Republicans find someone strong enough to take on Ed Houck).
In other words, a conditional veto along the lines just described above will mean a political victory for the Democrats. The arguments between plans will hurt the Republicans in the most vulnerable areas, while hurting the Democrats in regions where it will matter least to them.
Of course, Kaine could also veto it entirely, which would seem a gift to the Republicans. However, Kaine can also call for a special session of the legislature to deal with the transportation issue, bringing everyone back to square one (he can also do that if the legislature junks his alternative on the conditional veto).
During the special session, Kaine can present his plan – either as something new in the event of a straight veto or his alternative plan as presented in the conditional veto – and once again, the debate will be between the legislature’s plan of the Governor’s, and as mentioned above, the Governor wins politically.
This was the die that was cast the moment the Republicans in the House of Delegates agreed to tax increases. In the political battle to come, the Republican base will not be with them, and they will be forced to accept the Governor’s plan, or risk going to voters with the “do-nothing” label.
I’ve seen this before, both in New Jersey (where I grew up) and nationwide. In the late 1980s, Republicans controlled the Governor’s chair and one house of the legislature. They spent money like water, and fell into squabbling about tax increases to balance the budget. As a result, in 1989, the Democrats swept the GOP aside and won the Governorship and both houses. Within months, they passed the largest tax increase in the history of state government. The state GOP, having learned its lesson, opposed the tax increase en masse. The voters of New Jersey rewarded them with control of the state for a decade.
Likewise, in 1990, President Bush the Elder broke his word on taxes, and demanded his Congressional allies swallow the tax hikes. Bush promptly lost his re-election to Bill Clinton, who responded with the tax increase of 1993. Again, the Republicans in Congress learned their lesson, opposed the tax increase, and went on to control Congress for a dozen years.
Will it take a legislative loss in 2007 for the lesson to sink in? I don’t know. It’s still early, and ironically enough, if the Republicans realize the error of their ways, they can still stop this thing and restore their limited government reputation (I would be stunned if Kaine signs this bill, which would be the only situation where this does not apply). Trust me, it is always better to correct the mistake before the election than to apologize for it after the election. Only time will tell if the General Assembly Republicans will realize that this is the only way out of the trap in which they have ensnared themselves.